CiTR: The little station that could

This feature originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Trek.

When an excited physics professor, Gordon Shrum, announced plans for a radio studio on the UBC campus, audio broadcasting was younger than most of the university’s 3,152 students. It was September 1937, and even the CBC was only 10 months old. Radio was a new frontier.

Professor Gordon Shrum in 1951. He announced plans for UBC’s first radio studio in 1937. Photo courtesy UBC Library Archives.
Professor Gordon Shrum in 1951. He announced plans for UBC’s first radio studio in 1937. Photo courtesy UBC Library Archives.

The proposed UBC studio was to be constructed in the basement of the Agriculture Building. It would be well-equipped to produce shows, but getting these onto the airwaves would mean relying on CBC and the handful of other commercial stations existing in Vancouver at that time. The plan, Shrum said, was to install a cable connection between the campus studio and the local CBC studios, enabling the university to broadcast to audiences throughout the province. Interested students could sign up for extracurricular training in “radio technique.”

Although equipping and running a radio studio was an expensive proposition, Shrum was optimistic. To help with costs, the BC Electric Railway had committed to sponsoring a daily five-minute farm show to help Fraser Valley farmers with agricultural problems. In addition, a downtown Vancouver station, CJOR, had agreed to provide facilities and airtime for producing and broadcasting a half-hour primetime show each week. It would feature drama, speeches and musical presentations by UBC students and professors and would, hopefully, bolster the university’s image. Malcolm Brown, a physics undergrad and AMS Executive, recruited a features production team that worked long hours digging up news and entertainment, and the first official episode of the show, Varsity Time, aired on CJOR on the evening of October 12, 1937. The daily noontime farm show began on CBC just 15 days later.

Only two of the student broadcasters had prior broadcast experience. The others simply knuckled down and made it happen.

Only two of the student broadcasters on Varsity Time – chief announcer Dorwin Baird and Ozzie Durkin, the music director – had prior broadcast experience. The others simply knuckled down and made it happen. From the beginning, campus radio attracted independent thinkers, many of whom became famous radio personalities, writers, actors, and politicians. It was during the tenure of Pierre Berton, who became chief announcer in 1940, and his lifelong friend, Lister Sinclair, that the Radio Club was raised to the status of a society and quickly became known as “RadSoc.”  By the mid ’40s, RadSoc had already outgrown the original studio and in 1948 was relocated to the south basement of Brock Hall.

Although announcers in the ’50s began signing on as “URS – the University Radio Society,” the name RadSoc stuck firm. “How we hated that name,” laments Jim Morrison, who lived and breathed radio as a UBC student in the ’60s, and for years afterwards, with CBC, CKWX, CKLG, and KISS/FM. “The name RadSoc just didn’t sound right,” Morrison says, “so we renamed the operation ‘UBC Radio,’ and had fancy letterhead and business cards made up, to look like a real radio station.

“We were somewhat possessed – if not possessed, certainly obsessed,” he says. “We just wanted to become broadcasters. The Radio Society was the only place people could get some kind of experience and training in radio, without actually having to have a job.” After three years as a member, Morrison was hired by CBC as a summer-relief night-shift technician. One of his friends from RadSoc, Brian Brenn, was working days at CKWX, as was radio icon Ron Robinson. Morrison would drop by at ’WX to have breakfast with Brenn, and there he met Robinson, who became his mentor. “He was just as good as a god,” says Morrison. “We just tried to be like Ron.”

Robinson himself had joined RadSoc as a 17-year-old sophomore in 1950. He had started out in engineering, but switched over to commerce because all the classes ended at noon. “That way,” he explains, “I could spend all my time at the station.

“We had excellent equipment and lots of music” says Robinson. “The record companies had been conned by somebody into sending us all their new releases, but all we had was a closed-circuit operation playing through a speaker in Brock Hall Lounge. It was a tiny lunchtime audience – you could make a lot of mistakes and it didn’t get on anybody’s public record.”

“The record companies had been conned by somebody into sending us all their new releases, but all we had was a closed-circuit operation playing through a speaker in Brock Hall Lounge.”

When Robinson became the society`s president, in 1952, he launched UBC Digest to broadcast news about UBC, just as Varsity Time had once done. UBC Digest began on CKWX, and continued as a highly popular program on various stations for almost two decades. At one point, 13 stations around the province carried it. “Almost every station carried UBC Digest,” says Jim Morrison. “It was the only contact that the people in the Interior had with UBC.”

In many ways, Morrison says, being in the UBC Radio Society gave students credibility and legitimacy with the broadcast industry. Several local stations coached RadSoc members in the art of broadcasting and it wasn’t unusual in those days for polished RadSoc members to pitch in as needed at regular stations around Vancouver, making the ’50s and ’60s a high point in UBC radio history.

The art of broadcasting wasn’t the only thing students learned at RadSoc. Engineers, for example, honed their skills while keeping the studios operational. Chris Huntley was an engineering physics student in 1954 when he joined RadSoc. Weeks later, on October 25, a fire raged through Brock Hall. The RadSoc studio, and everything in it, was destroyed. “We ended up building it again ourselves,” Huntley says, “starting from scratch.”

Jim Morrison attests to the excellence of the work Huntley and his colleagues did: “There was nothing like this, outside of a professional radio station, anywhere in BC.” Huntley soon became chief engineer, a post he held until graduating with his MASc in 1960.

Brock Hall Fire
After the Brock House fire in 1954, the radio studio had to be rebuilt from scratch. Photo courtesy UBC Library Archives.

Another promising engineering student, John Bourne, made a similar commitment to the Radio Society when the station moved to its present location in the Student Union Building in 1969.  Bourne somehow maintained superior grades while simultaneously serving as point-man for designing the new station. Recently retired as VP of a major telecommunications firm, Bourne says CiTR taught him much about the complexities of organizing responsibilities and making things happen. He says it offers a practical real-life training ground for people entering fields as diverse as engineering, management, and communications.

Ken Hardie, who rolled the last record (Windy, by Wes Montgomery) from the Brock Hall studios, and the first (Galveston, by Glen Campbell) in the SUB, says, “In the process of learning to do radio, we absorbed the ability to get inside the mind of the listener and connect. Our success depended on it.”  Hardie calls this, “trading minds,” something he has practiced daily and has instilled in many colleagues and clients in his decades-long career in communications.

On July 26, 1974, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission granted the station a broadcasting licence and formally conferred the call sign “CITR,” now branded as “CiTR” or “Thunderbird Radio.”  The station was mandated to broadcast material not played by any other commercial FM station, providing exposure for those independent radio artists who would not otherwise be heard.

Chris Dafoe on air in the current home of CiTR in SUB. Photo by Rosemary Anderson.
Chris Dafoe on air in the current home of CiTR in SUB. Photo by Rosemary Anderson.

Leora Kornfeld “was inducted into the cult,” as she puts it, in the summer of 1980. The station’s reach was still small at that time. It was possible to hook your receiver onto cable, but the signal was mainly transmitted over power wires to select campus destinations. “You could hear it on these crackly little speakers in the hallways of the Student Union Building and Gage Residences,” she says. Within about 50 feet of the carrier lines, however, the reception was quite good on a radio set.

Finally the day came, in the spring of 1982, when the station went FM. “I remember driving over the Burrard Street Bridge in my black Renault Le Car, and being able to tune in CiTR,” says Kornfeld. “What a complete thrill that was, to actually hear it on the real radio dial. That was a really big deal.”

This was before podcasts, and before MuchMusic. UBC radio was the outlet for Vancouver’s indie musicians. “It was almost a type of movement,” says Kornfeld. “There were few radio stations; there were few TV stations. So the people at CiTR had a sense of mission.”

“CiTR is a great place to try things that may seem ridiculous”

“CiTR is a great place to try things that may seem ridiculous, and you may make all sorts of ridiculous mistakes,” she says. “And then you find out, ‘Hey, I can do this!’” Kornfeld, who jokes that she “majored in CiTR and still managed to graduate with a BA,” went on to become a radio and television host, then launched a business in digital media, and is now a research associate at Harvard. What got her to Harvard? “It all started at CiTR,” she says. “The common thread is detective work – figuring out how to get things done.”

CiTR is the little radio station that could. A fixture for decades in Vancouver’s indie scene, CiTR continues to brave new frontiers. It was the first station in Vancouver with a website and in 2006 became the first campus station in the country to offer its own podcasts.  This year, the station linked up with UBC’s Creative Writing Program to revive radio drama on campus.

The next incarnation of campus radio will be in the new SUB, to be completed in 2014. The studios will include some special features, such as a wall that folds open so that bands playing live on CiTR can also play before an audience in the new SUB concourse.

CiTR is proud of the first 75 years of radio at UBC, and looks forward to a future as rich as its past. Many successful broadcasters, music industry mavens, engineers, arts administrators and other creative professionals got their start at UBC radio. Station manager, Brenda Grunau, says that “CiTR continues to be a training ground where mistakes are accepted as a normal part of learning. A lot of learning happens here. We’re a launching pad for creative types, and provide FM, print, and online platforms for the talent of students and community members.”

Perhaps the most valuable gift of all that CiTR has to offer is lifelong friendships. “CiTR makes you understand what it means to be connected to community, and how we benefit from community, and how one contributes to community,” says Vancouver Wine executive Harry Hertscheg, a CiTR broadcaster and writer in the ’80s and a leader in the CiTR community for more than 30 years.

As Leora Kornfeld says, “You think you go to university to learn about the classics or chemistry, but you really go to university to meet the people that you’ll know for the rest of your life. CiTR is a great place to meet the people you’ll know for the rest of your life.”

Listen to and learn more about CiTR and its 75-year anniversary celebrations on the website.

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